BAME people are over-represented as essential workers on the frontline of the pandemic. Tim Dennell | Flickr

Under the cover of the pandemic, the actions of the UK government have reinforced systems of racial oppression. The virus discriminates based on race: Public Health England data has established that BAME people are dying in disproportionately higher numbers compared to their white counterparts. BAME communities are on the frontline. They are overrepresented as ‘essential workers’, being placed in the most dangerous lines of work and, as a result, are more likely to die of the virus. The pandemic has both highlighted structural inequalities and seen government inaction help to reinforce these systems of oppression. The government’s failure to protect BAME workers on the frontline has left them vulnerable to a virus which discriminates.

The actions of the government were indicted in a recent report by Baroness Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, the black British teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in London in 1993. Commissioned by Sir Keir Starmer, the Lawrence Review condemned the government for perpetuating racial inequalities through its response to the pandemic. She states:

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been overexposed, under-protected, stigmatised and overlooked during this pandemic... The impact of Covid is not random, but foreseeable and inevitable – the consequence of decades of structural injustice, inequality and discrimination that blights our society.”

Lawrence sends a clear message: the government’s response to the pandemic has highlighted, enforced and entrenched existing structural inequalities.

The racial discrimination of the virus is evident. Those of Bangladeshi origin are 50% more likely to die of the virus according to Public Health England data. Almost three times as many black males and twice as many black females were infected with the virus compared to their white counterparts. The disproportionate impact of the virus can be explained by the overrepresentation of BAME people in frontline professions, particularly in the health sector, education and the food industry. The government designating certain workers as ‘essential’ saw many BAME people put on the frontline against a virus that the government has failed to control.

The BAME lives lost in the pandemic cannot be reduced to statistics; daily death tolls are dehumanising and have left the public desensitised to this still unfolding tragedy. The death of TfL worker Belly Mujinga, a black woman who was spat on by a passenger and denied PPE by her employer, exposes the shocking neglect perpetrated by those with a responsibility to protect essential workers. Her death further ignited Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer. Areema Nasreen, a brown woman, was one of the first nurses to die of the virus. She worked tirelessly in the intensive care units in a hospital near Birmingham. These stories remind us of the lives behind every statistic and demonstrate the overexposure of BAME people on the frontline and the failure of the government to protect them.

“The most vulnerable communities experience the greatest impact of the virus, while the government continues to deny them protection.”

The racial disparity in the effects of the virus has been investigated and some have suggested that biological factors can partially explain why BAME people are more likely to die of the virus. The August PHE report states that once comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type II diabetes are taken into account, the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME people is less pronounced. The link between these conditions and poverty highlights the connections between material conditions, race and risk of suffering from the virus. The report fails to investigate the intersection between occupation, deprivation, race and coronavirus deaths, a gross oversight that prevents us from gaining a holistic understanding of the risk posed by the virus. This type of simplification reduces the issue to genetics and fails to take into account the way in which deliberate actions taken by the government have reinforced structural inequalities.

Socio-economic inequalities have exacerbated the racial inequalities entrenched by the pandemic. The option to work from home simply isn’t available for many, meaning that not just those workers deemed ‘essential’ have had to travel, often on public transport, to unsafe workplaces, putting themselves at risk in order to survive. Poor and crowded housing has aggravated this crisis. Half of all Bangladeshis and Pakistanis live in poverty, limiting their ability to self-isolate or shield and putting their lives at greater risk. Like the Grenfell Tower tragedy, poor housing has exposed the intersection between poverty, government neglect and institutionalised racism, which has ultimately led to the avoidable loss of BAME lives. The most vulnerable communities experience the greatest impact of the virus, while the government continues to deny them protection.


Mountain View

Systemic racism exists in the UK at every level of government and society

Not only has the government put BAME workers on the frontline, it has actively targeted their communities during the pandemic. The Conservative MP Craig Whittaker stoked backlash by suggesting that Muslims were to blame for the spread of the virus, with the Prime Minister failing to denounce the comments. Furthermore, an investigation by Liberty revealed that the police are more likely to fine black and brown people for breaking coronavirus rules. This targeting of BAME communities by the Conservative government predates the pandemic and can be seen by the hostile environment policies that led to the Windrush scandal. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently stated that these discriminatory actions were against the law. Racism is deeply ingrained in the state’s consciousness, meaning the simultaneous targeting and neglect of BAME communities is far from incidental.

As with the Grenfell tragedy, the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment policies, the government’s response to the pandemic indicates that it does not value BAME lives. These systems of oppression however, are part of a wider malaise. Entrenched structural inequalities, both in institutions and wider society, have been highlighted by the pandemic. This is a time of crisis, and BAME lives are on the frontline.